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India plans to plant new forests with $6 billion

The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill was introduced in 2015, and was finally passed by the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of lawmakers, last week. The bill will be introduced soon in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house.

The funds for the project will be drawn from the corpus of fees that were paid since 2006, by companies and other institutions setting up projects in forest lands. The bill will see ninety percent of the funds being handed to state governments, while the central government will retain the reminder.

The union environment minister, Prakash Javadekar said, “Our forest cover will dramatically increase and it will result in achieving our target 33% of tree cover and most importantly 2.5 billion tonne of carbon sink as we have indicated in our intended nationally determined contributions (INDC).”

India’s forests have been on the decline over the last two centuries, but have assumed new significance now for several reasons. With India signing the Paris climate accord, it will have to come up with methods to reduce carbon footprint without adversely affecting its development trajectory. Providing an effective carbon sink through forests is one method. India’s tourism will also get a boost with the addition of new forests. Wildlife and eco-tourism are a small part of India’s foreign tourist segment, but are known to have lots of latent potential. India is also facing a water crisis, and more tree cover will help reduce soil erosion and increase groundwater levels.

Ironically, while the bill was being passed, forest fires have been raging in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, killing at least eight people. Though it is unclear what started the fires, their intensity has been blamed on the severe drought gripping central and western India.

Expert observers have expressed their reservations about the plan. Sreedhar Ramamurthi, an earth scientist and management trustee at NGO Environs Trust, said, “There should be a mechanism to monitor that the funds are used correctly. Many a times, forest officials themselves burn down forests when they are pressed for target completion and complain that their work was lost in fires.”

India’s 1.25 billion people are also a point to consider. Most regions of the country are densely populated, and the observers have asked where the government intends to shift people once an area is designated a new forest. Besides, the government has a tendency to approve the diversion of already existing forest lands. Since 1980, 1.29 million hectares of forest land has been diverted to non-forestry purposes. In the face of this, many experts have pointed out the irony of planting new forests while sounding the death-knell for existing ones.

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